Does Chinatown count?

There’s nothing so bad that it couldn’t be worse, especially in one Boston neighborhood.

Zhong Ruan Yue (left), Fen Xiu Gao (center), and Feng Xian Cui gathered in February at the Quincy Tower in Chinatown.
Zhong Ruan Yue (left), Fen Xiu Gao (center), and Feng Xian Cui gathered in February at the Quincy Tower in Chinatown.Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe

There’s nothing so bad that it couldn’t be worse.

That old saying was never truer than now. Or than it was late last year, when Angie Liou was revving up for this year’s Census.

That was back in The Before.

Like others who work with Boston’s Chinatown community, Liou, executive director of the Asian Community Development Corporation, was already worried about reaching residents of the tightly woven neighborhood, home to many immigrants and older residents.

Persuading vulnerable people to participate in the decennial count, and helping them grapple with technology and language barriers to do so, is a challenge at the best of times. But it was going to be even harder this year.


The Trump administration’s attempt to include a citizenship question on the survey — even though the attempt eventually failed — chilled immigrants who worried the information they provided would be used against them.

“They were afraid this was a ploy for ICE to suss out people who are undocumented, or to get information on legal immigrants,” Liou said.

That couldn’t be allowed to happen, because all kinds of bad things follow if people are undercounted in the Census: It can reduce a state’s federal funding for Medicaid, education, food, and housing programs, and even how many representatives we have in Congress.

So Liou and many others were worried. They had a plan, though: Together with other local community groups, they were going to deploy an army of volunteers to knock on doors in Chinatown, and in Asian communities in Quincy and Malden, to explain how important the count was, and to offer their help. They were supposed to start around now.

Then came The After.

The new reality came earlier to Chinatown than to the rest of us. Before other communities shut down on the orders of governors and mayors, customers started shutting down this neighborhood. They were worried about catching the coronavirus that was ripping through China’s Wuhan province, but hadn’t yet overtaken the United States.


Local officials and activists came together to try to persuade patrons to come back. The mayor’s office launched a social media campaign, encouraging residents to visit Chinatown’s stores and restaurants and post photos of themselves with the hashtag #LoveBostonChinatown.

It was grim, until bad yielded to worse.

“Looking back, that was before things got really hard,” Liou said.

Then came the big shutdown, and the miseries that came early to Chinatown hit everywhere, and especially hard in other communities where residents have few resources to help them withstand the blows.

Many of the people that Liou’s agency serves do low-wage work in restaurants, hospitality, and child care. These are not jobs you can do remotely, or without putting yourself at greater risk of catching the coronavirus. Some of the residents who are now unemployed aren’t eligible for public benefits, Liou said. Those who aren’t lucky enough to live in low-income housing were already squeezed by landlords in a place that has been throwing up fancy apartment buildings and pushing longtime residents out for years.

Now they need help not just to be counted, but to keep their families alive. Like giant swaths of this country, the residents who live in the 400 or so affordable homes managed by the ACDC don’t have savings to cushion this blow.


And racism isn’t making it easier. News of hateful incidents in other communities travels fast, Liou said. And it doesn’t help that the president and his minions have been trying to blame China for a catastrophe worsened by his own failed leadership.

“The Asian community is getting doubly hit in this crisis,” Liou said. “The financial losses, and anti-Asian sentiment.”

And they’re facing it without their community. Members of Chinatown’s Asian population, especially older people, spend lots of time outdoors together. Even in winter, hardy souls risk frostbite to play chess by the Chinatown gate. The ACDC held outdoor events “to make them feel like they own a piece of this place,” Liou said. “With all the luxury buildings moving in, they can feel like they don’t belong.”

They belong. And we ought to extend the Census deadline for as long as it takes to make sure they are properly counted. After all they’ve been through — are still going through — we must make sure of at least that.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.